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This is a very difficult movie for me to review. In general, I'm not a fan of martial arts movies. They all seem to blend together in a giant mass of tired revenge tales that offer very little that's new in the way of storytelling or in visual spectacle. And in many ways, The Grandmaster falls into that mass on a storytelling level. However, as a visual spectacle, the film is very well crafted and unique.
Ostensibly, the story revolves around Ip Man, the martial arts master who would popularize the art of Wing Chin in the mid-20th century. However, this story takes place mostly prior to the foundation of his legendary school, and instead focuses in the time surrounding the Japanese occupation of China. The primary focus of the tale is on the Gong family, the death of the elder Gong at the hands of the heir to his martial art style, and the Gong daughter's quest for revenge. It's fairly standard stuff, and the villain, known as "The Razor," is about as two-dimensionally written as his name would imply.
The real meat of the story, though, lies with Gong Er, the previously mentioned daughter. Her journey to accept her father's death and to take back the school from The Razor is reasonably compelling, and as far as this type of story goes, it is well done when the film finally decides to finally focus on its main plot thread. But, considering that Gong is the focus of the film, it begs the question of why Ip Man is even here. For the first half hour of the film, we're led to believe that we'll be focusing on his journey, but after that he, at best, is an observer, and at worst he isn't even present for the events unfolding onscreen. Occasionally, the film will cut back to him, but his scenes are mostly inconsequential to the overarching plot. It just seems so strange to name the film after him and then completely shift focus to another character who ultimately ends up being more interesting and worthy of our emotional investment.
But maybe I'm missing the point here. These films often are made to showcase martial arts forms and give audiences some cool fight choreography. And when this film does a fight scene, it is done beautifully. The martial artists flow from one form to the next with an artistry that seems like more of a dance than a fight. It's stated throughout the film that martial arts relies on precision, and the attention to detail with which the actors move is astonishing and quite breathtaking to watch.
This is only enhanced by the superb cinematography. The camera will often slow down just enough so that we can see every minute movement the martial artists' bodies make. A blow will then connect at normal speed, and we'll see the recipient connect with the environment, causing wood to splinter, water to splash, or railing to screw loose. And that connection is shown up close and in slow motion. All of this is done so fluidly that the transition from normal speed to slow motion is only really noticeable if one is looking for it. Don't expect any 300-style slo-mo effects. Where 300 was about emphasizing brute force, The Grandmaster is about showing you the meticulousness of the artists' movement. Even in the quieter scenes, the camera focuses on the minutiae of fairly routine activities, but the precision with which the artists move is breathtaking.
Alas, those quieter scenes are where I find the most fault. I found myself wanting the movie to get on with it and show me another cool action scene, but instead I was treated to the actors spouting poetry that may or may not be profound. Maybe there's a cultural gap that I'm just not breaching, but I found the symbolism-heavily dialogue to be tiresome after a while. And, ultimately, because I'm much more a story lover than a cinematography buff, the movie just didn't resonate with me like I thought it could have.
So do I recommend The Grandmaster? I can only answer with a resounding "maybe." I don't think I'd ever care to watch it again, but it also isn't a film that caters to what I like to watch movies for. If you want to watch a martial arts film with some fantastic choreography and cinematography, then you might appreciate it on a level that I don't. Just be prepared to endure some unnecessarily poetic storytelling in the process.
Now I'd like to hear what you think. Is The Grandmaster a mastery of its art form? Or is it a poorly told story with some pretty visuals? Or don't you even care and just want me to review a movie you haven't heard me rant about yet? Leave the answers to any of these questions, or any other thoughts you may have, in the comments below.